Reflections On Southeast Asia

R: We haven’t quite come to the end of our time in Southeast Asia: we have two more days left and two more updates to come, but time is tight so we need to crack on. As a result, these are perhaps more ‘knee-jerk reactions’ to Southeast Asia rather than ‘reflections’.

So, how do you summarise more than six months of travel in Southeast Asia? How do you boil down to a few choice paragraphs all that you have seen, heard, smelled, tasted and touched? Well…

Sight. The number one ‘experience’ listed in our Lonely Planet guide is traffic. Yes, traffic. And it’s true: from the moment we left Bali airport right up to our time in Bangkok we have seen more motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cars, buses and trucks than we will probably ever see again.

Let’s take Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon to you, me and Mr Kurtz). In HCMC there are five million motorbikes. That’s one bike for every person in Scotland. And no photograph quite captures the scooter-thick streets; you need to see it to believe it. Crossing the road is a test of both your own nerve and the competency of your fellow man. All you can do is edge forward – never retreat, that would spell disaster – and trust that the approaching two-stroke swarm will weave around you.

In Kuala Lumpur, opposite the Thai Embassy, we stood for a full fifteen minutes waiting to cross the road. This was not a motorway but a road in the centre of the city. No pedestrian crossing, no traffic lights, no islands to break up the perilous four lane crossing. If it had not been for a sympathetic embassy guard we would have been there yet.

You see, in SE Asia pedestrians do not have the right of way – not on the road, and certainly not on the pavement. Instead, pedestrians inhabitant that strange netherworld between the pavement and the road: the gutter.

The pavement is a place to park your motorbike or your car, or perhaps your truck; it is an area to lay out all your goods and chattels; and a place to eat your evening meal on Lilliput plastic tables and chairs. It can also be a place where the local authorities choose to plant huge pedestrian-scuppering trees, their massive roots eventually pulling up the surrounding pavings. Whatever the use, just don’t expect to walk there.

But why would you be walking? In SE Asia, if you are wealthy you drive a jeep. If you are upwardly mobile you have a Japanese or Korean sedan. Failing that you have a motorbike; a two-stroke upon which you carry children, dogs, potatoes, huge six-feet high signage, fifty live chickens, a wardrobe, a satellite dish – anything that takes your fancy, really. And if you are old or poor – or both – you may have a bicycle. But walk? Only the poorest, the most pitiful people walk. Or backpackers, which, let’s face it, amounts to the same thing.

But despite so much traffic, so few pavements and the absence of traffic lights and pedestrian crossings, it seems to work. It really does. We saw no examples of road rage throughout the whole of our six months. Not one. And little in the way of accidents. We witnessed only a single incident – in Pakse – and heard two others – in Phnom Penh and Nha Trang.

Sound. Traffic, obviously. But more specifically tooting, or honking. In SE Asia you drive with one hand steering and the other hand on the horn. The air is continually filled with the blaring and bleating of competing horns. But it is not done in anger, as it is in the UK; or for no apparent reason, as is the case in New York. It is done as a polite declaration of your presence. It is the soundtrack to safety rather than a prelude to motorised apoplexy.

Dogs barking would be another favourite. Wherever you are in SE Asia you will always be able to make out a dog howling in the distance. And the shuffling of sandals. Yes, it is a strange feature that a lot of women (it doesn’t appear to be a trait of men here) shuffle rather than walk. They rarely lift their feet. Too hot, I guess. Who’d want to use up all that energy raising a leg unnecessarily.

Smell. Probably best summarised as a heady brew of petrol fumes, incense, warm sewage, honeyed lemongrass, mothballs (think benzene and vomit), the sun-baked earth, cigarette smoke, fried chicken (fried anything, in fact), bubbling rice, chargrilled corncobs, coconut oil, and what I can only describe as the smell of catnip. The proportions and predomination of one over another obviously varies, but you get the general idea.

Taste.We’ve been reasonably adventurous. No, we haven’t trapped a live monkey under a table, forced its head up through a hole, removed the top of its skull, and eaten its throbbing brain while it still hoots and hollers. But we have eaten at a number of roadside shacks. And in Indonesia, Malaysia, Laos and Cambodia this is arguably more dangerous than chowing down on simian cerebrum stew.

And although we’ve enjoyed many SE Asian dishes over the last six months, our ‘go to’ cuisine has undoubtedly been Indian. We’ve had some amazing curries in Malaysia, Laos, and Cambodia, and probably the best ever in Hoi An (New Way Restaurant). A life without lamb madras or aloo gobi would be a poor one indeed.

But it’s not been the content of the SE Asian cuisine which has surprised us; more the delivery. Perplexingly, the majority of our dining experiences have followed this well-worn pattern:

  1. Upon sitting down we are handed a menu as thick as the London telephone directory.
  2. We are given approximately twelve seconds to make our selections.
  3. Pleas for more time ensure that a waiter or waitress looms over our table with pen and pad poised.
  4. Once ordered, we wait no longer than two and a half minutes for the first plate to arrive (rather embarrassingly this is almost always my dish).
  5. Twenty minutes later Sophia’s dish arrives (I’ve usually finished mine by this stage).
  6. If we decide on a dessert (a rare treat) we usually eat from a table still cluttered with empty plates and dirty cutlery.
  7. Once finished it can take up to two hours to attract anybody’s attention and to pay the bill.

We have never managed to establish why this should be. We have asked countless people; but the question itself seems not to register, far less any answer. Perhaps there is some catering school buried deep in the mountains of the north, a secret school which teaches all chefs and cooks The Way Of The One Dish – an ancient, mystical rite which rejects modern-day multitasking. It would certainly explain why Cambodian weddings last three days.

Touch. I realise that I’m flirting with fromage here, but I’m genuine when I say that it’s the people that have touched us most. Cheesy but true. Two standouts for us have to be the children of Grace House, where Sophia volunteered for a month, and the people of Laos (although we didn’t meet them all).

After six months in Southeast Asia returning to Scotland may well prove a huge cultural shock – that low leaden skyline, the empty streets, the wide uncluttered pavements; but perhaps our month in Laos will have helped us acclimatise. Certainly there’s not much between the two countries in terms of population and geographical size; and worthy of reflection is the fact that Laos is one of the poorest and friendliest countries in world. I guess a lot like Scotland after independence.


Bibliography of a Backpacker: ‘Moby Dick’ by Herman Melville

R: The White Whale and I have become great friends on this trip; and although I finished reading Moby Dick nearly four months ago, I thought it a fitting book with which to end my literary odyssey.

I’m not a great reader on the bus, suffering as I do from text-induced motion sickness. Planes and trains are no problem, but buses (and Fijian boats) are necessarily prose-free areas for me. With this in mind I left the UK with an unabridged audiobook of Melville’s classic.

Through bursts of Frank Muller diction the whale has followed me along Brazil’s Costa Verde, through Peru’s Sacred Valley, around Lake Titicaca, across the Altiplano, down the Chilean coast and twice over the Andes. And it has helped break the monotony of overnight rides from Melbourne to Sydney, Sydney to Byron Bay and Bali to Java. In Singapore Moby Dick disappeared amid the gloom – the backlight of my iPhone packed in – before resurfacing in Thailand, where, in Kindle format, I eventually made it to the book’s climatic final scene.

So what of the book itself? At first Melville’s style – long sentences, archaic language and florid descriptions – is a little difficult to penetrate, but as the mist clears you are soon pitched headlong into a salty, oily world of whales, whaling and harpooners.

But Moby Dick is as much famed for its verbosity as its virtuosity, and there is no denying that Melville’s prolixity can often frustrate and even defeat the pluckiest of readers. Arguably, nearly half of the one hundred and thirty-three chapters do not concern the main narrative, exploring instead the history, science and culture of whales and whaling. In fact, a more appropriate title for the book may have been Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Whales But Were Afraid to Ask.

But the hardy reader is rewarded, as the accumulative effect of each digression serves to both build suspense and enhance the central metaphor of the whale. I say central metaphor, as there are probably as many meanings as there are chapters in the book. But what does the White Whale itself symbolise? God, nature, immortality? And what is the significance of Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal quest? Sin, hubris, or just plain old-fashioned revenge? Arguably, the key meditation of the book concerns the limits of man’s knowledge: that no matter how many ‘facts’ we gather about the world – about nature, about life, about ourselves – there are some things which remain forever unknowable.

Elsewhere I have lamented the attempts of others to write The Great American Novel; and it is from Melville that any aspirants must wrestle this title. In Moby Dick Melville does not speak of America but of the world, not of a whale but of life. This is why he takes his rightful place among the literary heroes of this trip.

But it is in the metaphorical richness that Moby Dick achieves its greatness. Its layers are so numerous, its weft and warp so tightly packed, that the reader is free to invest his or her own meaning. For me, Moby Dick is a metaphor for both the limits and the glories of travel. And I will leave Ishmael with the last word on both.

On the limits:

‘Round the world! There is much in that sound to inspire proud feelings; but whereto does all that circumnavigation conduct? Only through numberless perils to the very point whence we started, where those that we left behind secure, were all the time before us.’

And the glories:

‘How vain and foolish for timid untravelled man to try to comprehend aright this wondrous whale, by merely poring over his dead attenuated skeleton, stretched in this peaceful wood. No. Only in the heart of quickest perils; only when within the eddyings of his angry flukes; only on the profound unbounded sea, can the fully invested whale be truly livingly found out.’

Reflections On The South Pacific

The South Pacific. The phrase often evokes blissful images for cold souls in the Northern Hemisphere. Limitless vistas of azure skies, verdant vegetation and bone-white beaches dominate the mind. Tales of shipwrecks, mutinies and cannibalism excite the imagination and only add to pull of the place.

Our three months in the region, like our time in South America, was not spent mapping every inch, traversing every mountain range nor combing every beach. It consisted, in the end, of four weeks on New Zealand’s North Island, three and a half weeks in Fiji, and four and a half weeks heading north from Melbourne up Australia’s east coast. But our time there was long enough and varied enough to forge strong impressions of the area, an area which for many in colder climes has become something of a modern day Promised Land.

We will start with what made the greatest impact upon us: New Zealand. In its favour was certainly the fact that South America had preceded it, that what had been a tough and challenging adventure dissolved quickly into an easy-going English-speaking home from home. But even if we had gone straight from London to Auckland the overall effect would have been the same. Quite simply, New Zealand was amazing.

That New Zealand was amazing came as a surprise to us. So much is spoken about Australia that New Zealand is invariably and unfairly overlooked. To us, it seems to be a land constructed by a Deity who, upon scrutinising the Earth cradled in the palm of his hand, has plucked from its crust his favourite parts, fusing them together to form New Zealand’s unrivalled topography. The effect is incaptivating: massy mountains soar, glassy rivers roar and beaches and coastlines glitter with the incandescent light of the southern sun.

It is also a land which appears to have been created solely as a playground for backpacking, camper vanning adventurers. Its size – not as small as you perhaps would first surmise – is perfectly suited to the rhythms and syncopated beats of the nomadic spirit; and its towns and cities are of such a size that they neither overwhelm nor dull the greedy senses of the traveller. Its people, too, seem to exhibit just the right balance of character: an air of relaxed openness, easy approachability and steady guidance. Never before had we met a friendlier bunch.

Aside from New Zealand stealing the show, one theme which dominated our time in the Pacific has to be that of internet access. This may strike the reader as a mere trifle. But free and easy access to the World Wide Web is quickly become something of an inalienable right in the 21st century. And it is a right which is defended with passion by the travelling masses. Fiji can be excused at this point from any further scrutiny. Even on some of the most remote islands the internet was made available – via satellite – for a small nominal fee. In the Yasawas, where mains electricity and a fresh water supply still remains an ambition, the Fijians should even be applauded. But in Australia and New Zealand the situation is no less than scandalous.

In both these countries the situation was very often the same. Access to the internet came at a price, and even then surfing was slow, patchy, unreliable, and often limited in terms of time or data. It is rather embarrassing that only an oversized clown with orange hair and yellow dungarees had the wherewithal to provide ‘free Wi-Fi’ to much of the antipodean population. We are ashamed to admit that never before had we dined on so many Fish Fillets, Chicken Burgers and Cheese Quarter Pounders. These were the sacrifices that were made in order to keep the blog running.

To put Australia and New Zealand’s crime into perspective, we had free Wi-Fi access in the middle of San Pedro de Atacama. Yes, that’s the small town in Chile situated in the driest desert in the world. We have also had free and easy internet usage in Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Bali, Java, Singapore, Borneo, Malaysia and Thailand. What’s going on? This is surely a case for the investigative powers of John Pilger.

Once again, food was a theme which left a big impression on us. Fiji was a touch disappointing, proffering rather bland root vegetables and tasteless fish and meats; even the home-cooking of the more rustic retreats failed to provide in freshness what they lacked in variety. It was strange that, on islands which had fruit literally falling from the trees, life-affirming juices were in scant supply. Still, between us there was only a single episode of food poisoning. Happy days.

Australia had promised much with its legendary fusion of Western and Asian flavours, but it was probably undone by the crushing relationship between the British pound and the Aussie dollar. Although we gave ourselves double the budget of South America and triple the budget of Southeast Asia, many of the more salubrious eateries were simply out of our reach. And even when we could have invoked our Emergency Treats Fund (ETF), we simply refused to pay 25GBP for fish and chips. We may not have jobs, but we’ve still got principles.

But perhaps most tellingly, Australia was undone by New Zealand. In almost every conceivable example of gastronomy New Zealand excelled. It wasn’t just in the fabulous Michelen-starred style meal we had in Martinborough, accompanied by fabulous wine and surrounded by sun-soaked vineyards; it wasn’t just in twice or thrice weekly restaurant treats where we experienced the best-ever nachos, the greatest gourmet burgers, the most fabulous calamari and the world’s finest example of apple pie and ice cream; and it wasn’t just in the frankly phenomenal cafes – particularly in Wellington – where we devoured unparalleled pumpkin pie, sublime chocolate and cherry cake, marvellous muffins and first-rate flat whites. What brought home to us the glory of New Zealand’s larder was in the everyday sweets and snacks that punctuated our travel. Take a bow Pam’s Burger Hoops, soak up the applause Whittaker’s 72% Dark Ghana Chocolate, and start your lap of honour RJ’s Chocolate & Raspberry Licorice Bullets.

On a more serious note the South Pacific, like South America, is a region where the echoes of indigenous cultures still reverberate. We are no experts on this subject, and visitors can often be blind to what is clearly visible to residents; but we can only comment on what we witnessed. And we can only apologise if other people’s experiences are different and our remarks unwittingly cause offence.

Of the three countries Fiji has the largest proportion of indigenous people, especially in the Yasawa Islands where a great deal is being done to preserve Fijian traditions and culture. On the mainland there is a greater presence of Indo-Fijians, which is a legacy of Britain’s policy at the end of the nineteenth century of sending indentured labourers from India. There has been and there still exists tensions between these two groups but some sort of fragile harmony seems to have been established.

New Zealand’s attitude to the Maori people, its culture and its traditions, is without doubt the most progressive and enlightened that we’ve experienced on our travels. Everywhere we went in New Zealand we were exposed to the Maori way of life, its history, its people, its traditions and its culture. Whether of European or Maori descent, the vast majority of people seemed to take great pride in this vital element of the country’s history. The Te Papa Museum is probably the greatest example of this. A massive building covering four huge floors, Te Papa is the most modern and most interactive museum we’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. It houses exhibits on New Zealand’s wildlife and natural habitat, recounts the migration of Europeans to its shores, and showcases Western art and Old World artefacts. But its main purpose is to preserve and promote the rich cultural history of the Maori people. And this is a history of which all New Zealanders seem to feel part. Granted, all is not perfect between Maori communities and other parts of the population; some feel that this minority is unfairly disenfranchised while others believe they have more rights than the majority. But if ever there was an encouraging example that historical enmity can be overcome then New Zealand is surely it.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for Australia. We saw very few aborigines during our time there, and virtually none in any meaningful jobs or positions within society; what little exposure we had to aboriginal museums, galleries or any other forms of cultural representation, we had to work hard to discover; and the Australians we met spoke fleetingly of the past and seemed embarrassed or awkward when discussing the subject. Australia’s was certainly a much more brutal history than that of New Zealand’s, and perhaps the latter has had an opportunity to learn from the former’s mistakes. Whatever the reasons, the difference between the two countries in this regard is glaring.

As way of an example, let us compare New Zealand’s Te Papa with Australia’s Museum of Sydney. On the day we visited the MoS, there hung in different parts of the first floor two paintings by indigenous artist Gordon Syron. Below each were comments by the artist which included stinging criticisms of what he described as the ‘British Invasion’ and the ‘denial’ and delusion’ that has followed ever since. On the very same floor, and occupying considerably more square metres than Syron’s work, was a large exhibition on the history of surfing. This stark and jarring juxtaposition perhaps told us more about Australia than a hundred documentaries ever could.

You may be thinking that we didn’t take to Australia. You are partly right. It had a lot to live up to after we had enjoyed New Zealand so much, and perhaps it would have fared better if we had gone straight from the rollercoaster that was South America. That said, Melbourne was something of a revelation – helped in no small part by the tennis – and without doubt it is a city that would be a joy to live in, especially if that life was in South Yarra. Sydney was sabotaged somewhat by the weather; but again, inhabiting a penthouse overlooking Manly Harbour would be a wonderful way to spend one’s evenings, and the ferry a delightful means of getting to and from the office. Brisbane, too, was of a sufficient size and – dare we say – sophistication to make it more than adequate spot to set up home.

And so we will remember the South Pacific with much fondness. Fiji will always be recollected for the dark times but warm hearts of the undeveloped islands; it will also be remembered as a place where we eventually reached paradise and fell helpless but happy into the ten days that followed. Australia will always be associated with Marvellous Melbourne and nearly-marvellous Murray, as well as a Sydney which eventually yielded and offered up some of its delights; we will also never be able separate the Land of Oz from memories of our road trip up its rough and tough northeast coast, a journey made in a haze of tarmac-melting and hothouse-humid temperatures.

But our hearts will forever remain in New Zealand. And it is a beautiful twist that one of our biggest regrets may well turn out to be one of our greatest joys. For now we have a great excuse to go back and visit the South Island.

Days 150 – 158: Bali Beautiful

S: After our two short flights from Australia- via Darwin – we landed in Denpasar, Bali. The sights, sounds, smells and guidebook told us we were in for a special treat. Once we checked into our accommodation and checked out the pool, we knew this was somewhere special.


After our challenging time in the camper van in Australia we decided we were due a splurge. We decided to stay in the area of Ubud, a small town perched on gentle slopes leading up towards the central mountains. We chose Ubud over Kuta – Bali’s largest tourist beach resort. We were not disappointed with our decision. We spent the first few days lounging by the pool and eating out at some fabulous local restaurants, sampling some of Indonesia’s very best cuisine. At a very modest 200,000 rupees (just under £14) we found we could bag ourselves a slap up authentic meal for two, including beers.

Slowly we ventured outside the comforts of our hotel and took a visit to The Sacred Monkey Forest. Here, we came (almost quite literally) face to face with some punk monkeys. The ‘punk’ refers to their hair style the monkeys sport, so the locals tell us. A notice at the entrance advises entrants not to take any water bottles into the forest. One fellow tourist did not follow this advice and we witnessed what could only be described as a ‘water bottle robbery’. The monkey jumped up on to the lady’s neck whilst hissing and showing her his very sharp teeth and grabbed the bottle straight from her hands. He then sat drinking the cool fresh water while the lady looked on with shock and dis belief displayed on her face. Warning: They are not as innocent as they look.



After speaking to a friendly couple at our hotel, who told us about a fantastic cycling tour they took around Ubud, we decided to take the tour ourselves. The tour involved an early start (7.30am) from our hotel and took us to an area to the north of Bali, Penelokan, where we consumed fresh fruits and pancakes whilst overlooking the smoking Mt Batur volcano. After breakfast we stopped off at a Balinese plantation and sampled some ‘poo coffee’. Let us explain, a luwak (a small animal, a cross between a foxes face and a cats body) is fed coffee beans. When he has digested the coffee beans and they have left his body they are collected by staff members, cleaned (very thoroughly we hope) and then follow the traditional coffee production process. It is then served to pompous tourists who feel they are privileged enough to spend 60,000 rupees on a cup of this coffee which is described by the locals as a delicacy.


The luwak

Once our caffeine levels were sky high we pulled on our cycling helmets and got familiar with how to ride a bike again. The cycling tour took in a visit to a Balinese home where we were able to take a look around and given an insight into the culture and way of Balinese life.


Over the length of 25k we cycled through lush paddies and through the back streets of Ubud, high-fiving young kids as they shouted their hellos to us and showed us their big smiles. The tour was topped off by a delicious Balinese-stye lunch. Needless to say the cycling tour was a fantastic way to experience Bali.


Rice fields


Our guide Punk


To get into the Balinese spirit even more, we treated ourselves to a traditional Balinese massage and I took part in a yoga class one morning.

Bali has been a wonderful introduction to South East Asia and we hope a flavour of more to come. Tomorrow we leave Bali and travel by overnight bus west to Yogyakarta on the island of Java…

Days 140-149: From Crikey To Cairns

With Barney Mk II stocked up with an appropriate balance of provisions – one bottle of wine to every pack of noodles – we turned the key, selected drive, released the handbrake and tore north out of Brisbane (if you can tear out of anywhere in a pregnant roller-skate weighed down with enough tins to survive a nuclear winter).

Quick geography lesson: Australia’s big. Travelling up from even the midpoint of the east coast meant we were clocking up around 400km per day. En route we stayed overnight at Noosa, Rockhampton, Airlie Beach, Townsville, Cairns, Port Douglas and back to Cairns.

Noosa: playground for the rich; great stop-off for the flashpackers among us

A stone, next to a bench, at Airlie ‘No Beach’ Beach

Cooling off in Townsville’s beachfront lagoon

From Noosa we visited Australia Zoo. Made famous by its owner, Steve ‘the Crocodile Hunter’ Irwin, it’s an impressive place. Spanning nearly 100 hectares it showcases the best of Australia’s wildlife, and all in fantastic surroundings.

Getting up close and personal with a ‘roo

Crocoseum: Steve Irwin’s impressive snapper arena

A cute and cuddly koala

Steve – no longer with us following a stingray attack in 2006 – was viewed in the UK largely as a figure of fun; a crocodile-wrestling loon more famous for his indecently-sized shorts than his work with animals. In his native Queensland, however, he was revered. And his memory is kept alive each year with an official ‘Steve Irwin Day’, when everyone is encouraged to walk about in khaki saying ‘crikey!’ a lot.

And perhaps rightly so. Once you learn a little more about him, you discover a man who spent his whole life championing conservation and trying to educate people in his own inimitable style. Australia Zoo is a powerful reminder of what he achieved and well worth a visit – even if, on the day we visited, undersized khaki shorts were not available in the gift shop.

With the Khaki-coloured one and his family

Our nights at Rockhampton, Airlie Beach and Townsville were largely uneventful bar one phenomenon – the heat. Even in Noosa we began to notice that the nighttime temperature was a touch oppressive; but the farther we drove north the worse it became.

It reached its apogee in Townsville, a place so dull they named it twice, but in different languages in the hope we wouldn’t notice. Here the problem was not just the heat; it was the mosquitoes too.

Imagine the scenario: it’s 26C, it’s midnight, there’s not a breath of wind, the air is thick with bugs, and you’ve taken the decision to sleep overnight in a family-sized biscuit tin. Any chink in the skylight or gap in the window invites a squadron of buzzing infidels. But an airtight seal means even higher temperatures, restricted breathing and clandestine claustrophobia. Japanese POW camps had nothing on this. Suffice to say, it was a long night.

During the nights that followed we either managed to acclimatise to the conditions or taping a scrap of netting over the skylight made all the difference. Whatever the reason, nights in Cairns and Port Douglas were merely awful rather than unbearable.

Our time in Port Douglas was dominated by our trip to the Great Barrier Reef (separate blog to follow), while our stay in Cairns was a rather sedate affair where heart rates were only quickened during a visit to Coffee Works, the world’s largest coffee museum. Not only was it surprisingly informative – did you know, for example, that Balzac used to jitter and judder his way through 40 cups a day? – but there was all-you-can-consume coffee, chocolate and liqueurs.

Wired for grounds

And it is amidst this caffeine-fuelled high that we come to the end of our time in Australia; and for that matter the South Pacific. Today we fly off to Bali to begin our Southeast Asia adventure. We still have a couple of packs of noodles left over, but apparently they’re readily available where we’re headed.